Simple Tools for Better Mental Health
Psychologist Rashelle Hakak offers five simple, effective tools for reducing stress and anxiety and improving mood.
By Rashelle Hakak
Stress and anxiety impact all of us at different times. People respond in various ways to feeling overwhelmed. The good news is that we, as humans, can rewire our brains by practicing new response patterns. Here are a few simple and effective behaviors you can practice to de-stress.
Diaphragmatic breathing. Practicing deep belly breaths has been found to reduce levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. To practice: Lie on your back comfortably, and place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your navel. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, moving the breath past your chest to your diaphragm. Your chest will be still and your stomach will move upward. Hold your breath for a few seconds. Exhale slowly through your mouth. Your belly should go back to its original position while your chest stays still.
When you get this diaphragmatic breathing down, you have the power to lower your cortisol levels in any situation. You can accomplish this lying down, standing, sitting, or walking. Practicing for 10 minutes a day or more can yield great benefits. I have found that scheduling it into one’s routine—even while in the car (parked, of course)—helps many set a regular and reliable practice. The more you practice, the easier it will feel and the more effective it will be.
Mindfulness. This is the practice of being in the present moment with the mindset of acceptance and curiosity. We all have worries, and sometimes they consume us and affect our physical state. We may experience body tightness and shortness of breath, for instance.
To counteract this response, practice noticing when you are worrying. Point it out to yourself with curiosity and leave the judgment behind. Let the worry move through your body. If you notice it hanging out for a while, write it down. You can even keep a note on your phone titled “Worries” to jot your worries down when they want to hang out in your brain. Note the worry in writing, then move your attention to diaphragmatic breathing.
Challenging your thoughts. All of us have negative thoughts that leave us anxious or upset at times. Some people are better than others at letting those thoughts go. When you notice a negative thought, challenge it. Ask yourself: Is it always true? Is there another perspective from which to look at things? What advice would I give to my best friend who was having this same thought?
Positive self-talk. When things feel overwhelming, we can become our own best friend. Talk to yourself as you would give a pep talk and provide support to your best friend. Practice love and kindness towards yourself.
Focus on gratitude. Practice finding and expressing appreciation for things throughout the day. These can be small, like good weather, someone holding the door for you, being on time, having a meal, enjoying a cup of coffee or tea, making your bed, or having a pleasant interaction with someone. Practicing gratitude over time releases chemicals in our brains that help us feel more joy, boost our immune systems, and help us feel less lonely.
You have the power to rewire your brain through practicing these skills, as you would any other new skill. Keep practicing until these become easier and second nature.
Try each of these tools to see what works for you.
Dr. Rashelle Hakak is a psychologist practicing in West Los Angeles. She treats children, teens, adults, and families for a variety of mental health challenges. She loves supporting individuals and families through their obstacles and empowering them to find their inner strength and connections. Find her online at drrashellehakak.com.
This story appears in the January 2022 issue of The El Segundo Scene